"Authoritarian governments should consider holding fair elections.” This intriguing comment by Mike Touchton, a professor of political science at Boise State University of Idaho in USA, is certainly worth pondering about. But why should such governments consider doing such a thing? “It just might invite more prosperity,” he explains in an article on the subject.
“Free and fair elections attract investment, no matter who's elected. Here's why.”—this was the title of his article published in The Washington Post on January 8, 2016 in which Mike Touchton did not insert merely his own personal views. But the opinion he formulated was based on an extensive study that he carried out by using regression analysis to estimate the relationship between fair elections and foreign investment in 157 countries over more than 20 years.
He wrote: “Fair elections are critical not only because they hold a government accountable for its actions, but also because they signal investors that this nation's government respects democracy and the rule of law. Investors want reassurance that governments will respect their property and not seize or tax it at high rates.”
He also spoke why investors are curious to observe the nature of the election. “Accurate information about how a government might treat an individual firm in a dispute is difficult to come by. Investors therefore watch elections carefully, use them to assess political risk, and let them inform investment strategies.”
“Many conclude that governments that violate electoral laws to stay in office would also be willing to violate investors' property rights. If election was rigged, and the leader is overriding laws and constitutional provisions, no one in the country can stand up to the government if and when it reneges on its promises. And so investment falls—because there's a lot of economic risk in doing business in countries with unconstrained governments,” he concluded.
What Mike Touchton found in his study is, in fact, not new. Many political pundits and economists have been advocating for free and fair elections for the sake of the overall betterment of people for a long time. For decades, various international organisations including the UN have been advocating for governments to ensure people's right to vote in free and fair elections.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the UN in 1948 speaks unequivocally about the power of people in democracy. “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures,” pronounces section 21 (3) of the declaration.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966 also endorses the significance of free and fair elections. In Article 25, it says: “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions: (a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives; (b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.”
The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979 and regarded as an international bill of rights for women, spoke for free and fair elections. Article 7 of the convention says that state parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life of the country and, in particular, shall ensure to women, on equal terms with men, the right: (a) To vote in all elections and public referenda and to be eligible for selection to all publicly elected bodies.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), the global organisation of national parliaments, at least in two declarations speak for holding free and fair elections. In the declaration on Criteria for Free and Fair Elections adopted in 1994 and in the Universal Declaration of Democracy adopted in 1997, the IPU spoke about the state's responsibility to ensure free and fair elections.
One thing is clear that all the international instruments passed by UN and IPU advocate good elections.
Bangladesh has also made legal efforts to uphold the spirit of various international instruments on people's rights and democracy. One of the fundamental principles of our state policies is democracy and human rights as Article 11 of the constitution declares: “The Republic shall be a democracy in which fundamental human rights and freedoms and respect for the dignity and worth of the human person shall be guaranteed and in which effective participation by the people through their elected representatives in administration at all levels shall be ensured.”
Bangladesh is a signatory to the declaration of human rights, international covenants and convention adopted by the UN. The country is also a member of IPU and one of our MPs was recently the president of the global body. Therefore, it has committed itself via international law to hold free and fair elections.
The country has developed institutional and legal frameworks in line with the principle. The Election Commission has been constitutionally empowered to conduct the elections. The legal framework, the Representation of People Order (RPO), outlined the procedure for holding the polls. The RPO also speaks for holding the polls “JUSTLY” and “FAIRLY” and the EC can take any measures to ensure that the polls are held justly and fairly. But in reality, the institution appears weak and is unable to ensure effective enforcement of the electoral laws. Moreover, undue influence of the government on the election administration makes things worse.
Mike Touchton says free and fair election brings a country increased revenue from both portfolio investment (such as stocks, bonds, and mutual funds) in the short term and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI, which includes building factories, training workers through subsidiaries or joint ventures) in the long term.
This revenue could then be devoted to improving popular public services, such as healthcare and education—pleasing voters. Governments that hold free and fair elections may thus lose some short-term power, but it will gain prosperity, and potentially ongoing popularity, he argues.
“Unfortunately”, he wrote, “politicians in many developing countries reject liberal democracy because free and fair elections may mean losing power. Perhaps they might consider that free elections send clear signals to those whose investments can stabilise economies and improve standards of living.”
Thus, by all counts, a good election is the best medicine.
Shakhawat Liton is Planning Editor, The Daily Star.